BIOGRAPHY: Nick Broomfield’s doc about the artist Leonard Cohen and his muse and girlfriend Marianne Ihlen, is a touching story of an extraordinary relationship.

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: September 7, 2019

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

Nick Broomfield

Nick BroomfieldMarc HoeferlinShani HintonKyle Gibbon


Many will already know of the relationship between Canadian artist Leonard Cohen and the Norwegian Marianne Ihlen. Not least after the singer, songwriter, and poet – also facing the end of his life –sent a loving, last letter to the dying Ihlen in 2016, which got rather widespread media attention. Ihlen, who inspired So Long, Marianne and other well-known songs of his, passed away two days after she received the letter. Three months later, Cohen was also no longer amongst us.

This letter holds a central position in acclaimed British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s film on Ihlen and Cohen. Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love premiered at Sundance Film Festival at the end of January, and then got to open Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival a month later. This was where I got to see the film, which is a fascinating and moving portrait of two people who clearly had a deep impact on each other.

Controversial portraits

Broomfield’s previous film Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017) described the singer Whitney Houston’s life and tragic death. Among his previous films are Kurt & Courtney (1998), about Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s relationship to Courtney Love, and Biggie & Tupac (2002) about rappers The Notorious B.I.G. (also known as Biggie Smalls) and Tupac Shakur, both having been shot dead. In other words, Broomfield is not unfamiliar to docs about deceased musicians.

The director has nonetheless described Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love as the first love story he has ever told. Broomfield’s previous films on musicians have usually dug into the conflicts in their lives (and deaths), sometimes in a controversial manner. Kurt & Courtney, for instance, contained rather serious allegations against Courtney Love and discussed whether her husband’s death was, in fact, a suicide. (Although the film concluded that there was not much hold in the speculations of this not being the case.)

Free Love

In contrast, Broomfield’s film about Ihlen and Cohen is a warm portrait of the two protagonists, even though it doesn’t shy away from problems in their relationship. In addition, Broomfield – who often takes part in front of the camera in his films – has a personal starting point for this documentary.

As a young man of 20 in 1968, he got to know Ihlen himself at the Greek artist colony Hydra, and was, for a short period, her lover. She had moved to the island several years earlier with her first husband, the Norwegian writer Axel Jensen. According to the accounts given in the film, their marriage was not particularly happy. After she and Jensen had parted, Ihlen entered into a relationship with another writer at the island, whose name was Leonard Cohen.

Cohen himself admits to having almost been obsessed with sexual encounters with various women, of which the opportunities as a touring musician were plentiful.

The film depicts the free-spirited life on the island, which attracted various artists and people searching for a deeper meaning – or escaping from something in their past. Cohen is portrayed as a caring stepfather for Ilhen and Jensen’s son «Little Axel» – but little doubt is left that the Hydra’s bohemian scene, with its embrace of free love, excessive drug-taking, and frequent acts of neglect, wasn’t always healthy for the minors.

The film also tells the story of Leonard Cohen’s career, from when he gave up writing novels to, instead, write and compose songs – and learned to enjoy performing them. This led to periods of recording and other music-related work in his homeland of Canada, as well as extensive touring around the world. For many years, he frequently returned to Marianne at Hydra, but the other periods were hardly constructive for their relationship, to put it mildly. In the film, Cohen himself admits to having almost been obsessed with sexual encounters with various women, of which the opportunities as a touring musician were plentiful.

Important source of inspiration

Ihlen has often been described as Cohen’s muse, an aspect this film also emphasizes. According to Broomfield, she even had a similar function for him, being the one who encouraged him to become a documentary filmmaker.

Today, the term «muse» can seem somewhat outdated, as a romantic notion of the young woman who inspires the gifted, male artist through her sheer beauty and (preferably sexual) availability. However, some people undeniably have a talent for releasing the creative urge of others, whether they are the artist’s lover, creative consultant or, for that matter, «coach». In the film, the female songwriter and artist Julie Felix also speaks of Ihlen as her muse. The documentary makes an effort to depict the traits that made up the Norwegian woman’s ability to inspire, and underlines how important her role was in this respect.

leonard cohen-doc-MTR-post1
Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, a film by Nick Broomfield

Nevertheless, the film focuses mostly on the romantic relationship between Marianne and Leonard, told in a well-functioning combination of new interviews and older archive material. The film also uses recordings of both Ihlen and Cohen as voice over-narration, heightening the feeling of closeness.

love can last forever, even if relationships come to an end.

Marianne Ihlen eventually moved back to Norway, where she remarried and chose a more conventional life. The film thereby conveys the message that love can be found several times during a lifetime, without weakening the impression that the bond between her and Leonard Cohen was indeed special. Among the film’s interviewees is Ihlen’s Norwegian friend Jan Christian Mollestad (who also is one of the film’s executive producers), and through his recording, we witness her reaction when she received the aforementioned letter from Cohen. Accompanied by Mollestad’s eyewitness description, this is a deeply touching moment – where some simple, but beautiful words confirm that love can last forever, even if relationships come to an end.

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